Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Physic: A fortune

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
Physic: A fortune
by Beaufort Bright


I occupy a large house at the corner of Clifton Street and Derby Place, one of the new and fashionable thoroughfares recently sprung up in this populous manufacturing town of Rexford. Before my front windows—handsome bow windows on either side of an elegant stone porch—three roads come to a point, and a triangular grass-plat, surrounded by iron railings, does its best to maintain the peace by its unbiassed equanimity. Each of these roads leads to long interminable rows of respectable houses. The inhabitants of these domiciles every morning and afternoon must pass and repass my door on their way to the great heart of the city. Thus, hundreds go by daily. Why, then, after five years’ residence at Wimpledown House, why, then, I say—in the name of all that is good—do I sit waiting from day to day, and from year to year, for the patients that never come?

You may say, Perhaps I am not steady, attentive, agreeable, well up in my profession, and a host of other things. Let me hasten to inform you that none of these objections are good against me.

I hold a London diploma of M.R.C.S., and am a graduate of a university. I could at this moment, with the cobwebs of years upon my memory, give you the nine pairs of cranial nerves in their order from before, backward, with their four groups and their divisions, sub-divisions, and ramifications.

Last summer I took off Mrs. Crofts’ left breast for cancer, and she still lives, one of my staunch supporters. Mr. Battersby had sustained a bad compound comminuted fracture of the leg. He protests that he was saved from death by my instrumentality. Miss Murchison, in a case of tubercular bone, was reinstated (she would tell you) by the blessing of God through my skill and ability.

But Mrs. Crofts won’t always be having operations for my benefit; Mr. Battersby can’t be expected to be run over continually; Miss Murchison has had enough of it: and I ask, with these successful cases all staring people in the face, why do I sit waiting with aching heart for the patients that never come?

Right opposite to me, at the end of the Steemson Road, lives my friend Barlington. He is one of the chief surgeons to the Rexford Infirmary. He has a stirring and an active practice, and drives pleasantly in his close carriage and pair of prancing bays. He sits forward as he drives, and reads diligently, holding his book so that passers-by may see it. People say: “Barlington must make the most of his time. Every spare minute he devotes to study. He’s a remarkable man, that Barlington!” Sometimes, when his eye is wandering through the window, he bows very low to me as I drive past in my cab. For I am supposed to hold in my power occasional consultations, and Barlington has always his eye to the main chance. He is a little, shrewd man, with an excitable manner, and a disposition to gossip. I have heard that he sometimes becomes so interested in discussing the prevalent topics of the day, that he has left his patients without entering upon the subject of their ailments. I dare say he would do a good action as willingly as any other man; but he has a patronising air. When I “meet him,” he “hums” and “hahs,” puts his hands in his pockets, and looks at his gold repeater. He has no children—no relations to stretch out craving hands towards him; but he loves his money, and likes to hear the chink of it as he paces up and down the sick room. His friends say: “An extraordinary man, Barlington! Lets no grass grow under his feet! He drove down to Fetterkin yesterday morning, to be present at an operation; came back at eleven, a.m., sees his patients; off again by the train to Limpfold, catches the return at five, and pockets his fifty guineas for the day;—a fact—I had it from himself.”

And Mr. Barlington is just the man to tell it with infinite gusto. It is not long since Mr. Barlington was talking to my pretty little cousin, Mrs. Moreton. She was wondering how I, Dr. Plympton, was getting on.

“Oh!” says Barlington, “I should say Plympton has a fairish practice—a fairish practice. Jeremiah Peters, Esq., is a patient of his. He’s of the right sort. Plympton’s doing pretty well.”

And he strokes his chin, and blows the dust off his velvet cuffs. And then he said that he did not see why I should not have a first-rate practice in Rexford. And my pretty little cousin (to whom Barlington is apt to be very communicative) told it me with great glee, for she is a kind little soul; but it did not do me much good. For a few minutes I cheered up, and felt better; but variations of mind don’t provide payment of bills, or clothe my seven children.

One morning, standing at my drawing-room window, which looks up Clifton Street, I watched Barlington making his calls. He comes out of one house, pocketing his fee—drives on to the next, enters, and returns, repeating the same agreeable operation—next door but one just varies the formula by holding a circular parcel of white paper in his finger and thumb,—all the while as good-humoured and unconscious of offence as need be, while I looked on and felt disposed to be bilious.

There is Scorlings. He is a rough, rude, half-educated man, with plenty of vulgar impudence and random braggadocio. Scorlings is not well up in his profession. He has lately set up a close carriage; so it must pay with him. How does he do it? He lives round the corner. The situation of his house is not to compare with mine; but he can drive his carriage, and I go plodding along in my shabby second-hand cabriolet, that does not pay its expenses.

Two years ago, I was attending a woman suffering from ovarian dropsy. She was fifty years of age, and much enfeebled with her complaint. My remedies were successful, as far as remedies can be in such cases. She greatly improved, and I had hopes that she might live a considerable time, with rigid adherence to the rules I had laid down for her. Her friend, Mrs. Cole, lived next door. Scorlings is a great gun with Mrs. Cole. My patient was worried continually about Scorlings; and one day he pays Mrs. Morris a friendly call. During this accidental visit he pities and sympathizes, and assures her he can effect a cure. It ends with his telling Mrs. Morris, that in three months she will be herself again, that her complaint is nothing more than that incidental to married ladies. I receive a note, very civil and polite, informing me that it is not necessary that I should call again. But of course I did call, and found Scorlings and Mrs. Morris in the very heart of a consultation.

Poor woman! she died in three weeks. On her death-bed she sent for me, feeling the great mistake she had made; but it was too late. I arrived only to see her lying still and calm enough, the victim of gross ignorance. Scorlings is a loud-talking, blustering man. When he goes into a house, he makes coarse jokes with the women, and is hale fellow, well met, with the men. I am a man of few words, and it doesn’t pay, in my opinion.

Scorlings slaps the master on the back, pats the wife’s cheek, chucks the daughter under the chin, tosses up the baby. I do none of these things, and Rexford does not understand me.

Scorlings sends out dozens of mixtures, draughts, and pills,—blisters, ointments, and lotions. I approve of these things, but only as aids; Scorlings deals in nothing else. He has no faith in diet, or in anything. He believes in physic; nothing but physic will do with him. Scorlings and I don’t speak; since Mrs. Morris died, I have ignored him. He sent me an insolent letter, ill composed and ill-spelt; to which I replied, by informing him that I declined any discussion whatever with men of his grade; and he has been my relentless enemy ever since.

But if I must fail, let it be the failure of honesty; and let me do it honourably, if that is all I can do.

When I was a student in London, old Wrigley used to tell me,

“Plympton, you must humbug! There’s nothing to be done without it. By George, Plympton! but if you mean to take, you must use plenty of humbug!”

I used to wonder at an old man, such as he, talking in that way, and answer,

“Indeed, sir, but I never will. If they won’t take me for the real metal, they never shall for the dross.”

And he would shake his head, and laugh over his short pipe at nights, when he had come in, and had done for the day, as though it was fine talking, and he knew better.

And so twelve years have I plodded along in this large manufacturing town of Rexford, living from hand to mouth, how I scarcely know; and find myself just the same as when I first started, only so much older, so much more careworn, so much less able to battle with the difficulties that close in around me.

I used to live in Greg Street. For seven years we endured that wretched habitation. Whenever the wind was in the east the smoke persisted in stopping in-doors. Whenever it rained, the stench that came up from the cellars was something fearful. But the light seemed afraid of us. When a ray of sunshine did find its way in, it looked as though it had been mistaken, and did not feel itself at home. My wife and I used feebly to assert to one another, that “it wasn’t really so bad.” Then my wife’s uncle left Sophia a legacy; and we removed by the advice of my well-to-do friend, Jeremiah Peters, Esq., to Wimpledown House, a most eligible situation for a medical man.

“Who would think,” said Jeremiah Peters, “of opening a first-rate jeweller’s shop in a back street?” meaning, of course, that a good situation was of much importance.

I had my surgery-door made to open upon Clifton Street, the house fronting, as I said before, in Derby Place. I have a convenient waiting-room, down the surgery-passage, where patients were to sit until the ordinary consulting-room should be at liberty; for, as I said to Sophia, “People did not like to wait in draughty passages.” This waiting-room will hold nine persons; and there are nine chairs placed. But the only dust that is ever removed from them comes off with the daily duster.

I have never known more than one person sit in that room at one time. And the schoolboyish hope that five years ago dictated such preparation, every time I enter that apartment laughs me to scorn.

For a time after we came to Wimpledown House, I thought we should have done better. But the few patients that came seemed to think, that if they paid me for my medicine and advice they must enter into all their family affairs. Of course, I was willing enough to purchase their goodwill by a little sympathy; but after a time they fell short, and so I sat waiting for the patients that never came!

Three months ago, Samuel Barnet, Esq., sent for me. I found him sitting upon his bed, with two chairs, the two front legs being placed parallel with the ground, and the backs uppermost. Tapes were fastened from the shoulders of the chairs, and drawn inside the bed-posts, and Barnet was driving for his life. I had heard of his abandonment to drink, and I said within myself, when he is sufficiently recovered from this delirium cum tremore, I will reason with him, ere he is irretrievably lost. At the end of a fortnight Barnet was himself again.

One morning he began to question me as to the nature of his recent malady. I did not feel that the time was fully arrived, and I would have postponed it. But an answer he would have. If I had lashed myself into a fury of enthusiasm, it would have passed for good fellowship, and I should have lost nothing by my candour. Many men would have exaggerated his case, and have made excuses which they knew were not tenable. I considered, if I spoke the truth candidly and mildly, reproaches were for his own conscience; excuses came not near the subject. For Barnet was rich and healthy, with a well-conducted family, whose only grief consisted in his deplorable self-indulgence.

So I gave him the simple truth, without any circumlocution whatever. And what did he say?

“If I am to hear,” said Barnet, “why not let me have it, in a good bluff Jerry-go-round sort of manner, and have done with it? but in that sleek milk-and-water way, like a cat treading on paper,—why, hang it!”

And so, when Barnet and I met in Eye Lane a week after, he would not look at me.

There is a sort of fashion in bluntness. If you come out with a slang word or two to such men as Barnet, rant and tear, and call heaven and earth to witness a plain fact, it goes for something. To be quiet, composed, and gentlemanlike, is to be nothing; it is to be namby-pamby.

“Why, man, you swill like a porpoise, and are as bloated as one!” is the blunt style of expression. “Why, good sir, you drink much more than is good for you!” is the other. Each school has its disciples; and, although the two come to much the same conclusion, the ethics that lead to the one are of a coarser study than those that lead to the other.

Being much at home, and Mrs. Plympton having the house cleaned down at the time, I was left more to myself than is usually the case. To employ myself, I made some improvements upon an inclined plane for fractures, and Jeremiah Peters, Esq., just happening to pay his account, I devoted 10l. to registering my idea. I was full of hope of it; it had many points to recommend it to the use of the profession. I began to find myself whistling when I sat alone in my study, comparatively light-hearted. I found myself speculating as to how Tomlinson would regard me when I paid him the whole of his bill. I wondered how it would feel if I were to pay off everybody, and owe nothing. I used to look knowingly up at Sophia when she came to see what I was about, and say mysteriously, “There was no knowing what Plympton’s improvement might not do for us, after all.”

But the six months went by. The “taxes” had not been paid; the “gas” must be attended to; Mrs. Dubbins had sent three times for the amount of her bill; and my improved plane, as Barnet would say, “walked into the middle of next week.” Barlington, whom I had consulted, didn’t think much of it. “It might do, or it might not. He wouldn’t like to lend money upon it.” That was just a figure of speech, nothing more.

But the week after my probationary time was out, and my chance of protecting my invention had gone by, what does Barlington do? He goes to Gibbs, of the Patent Office, registers a slight alteration upon my design, and calls it “Barlington’s Improved!” Then he orders a quantity to be made forthwith, and supplies them at a large profit to the Rexford Infirmary.

Yet Barlington drives his carriage, and is making his thousands a-year; and I am waiting for the patients that never come!

I tried my hand at authorship. I gave to the world, “Plympton on the Action of the Coraco-brachialis,” “Speculations on the Spheno-maxillary Ganglion,” and “Plympton on the Pineal Gland.” My publishers, Tifflin and Snudbury, foretold me golden opinions, and the gratitude of a discerning public. The “Coraco-brachialis” cost me thirty pounds, and brought me in seven at the end of nine months. The “Speculations” I sold to Tifflin and Snudbury for 15l.; and to this day it holds a certain position in medical literature.

Jeremiah Peters met me in the City last Wednesday. Barlington once said:

“It was a good thing to be seen talking to Peters; it was as though you had a heavy balance as your banker’s.”

Well, Jeremiah drew out his pocket-book, and said to me,

“Dr. Plympton, can’t you give me a sovereign for the widow Jones?”

I shook my head. “Gold doesn’t come so easily into my pockets,” I said, smiling; and I could not help but think, “Does he recollect that I have seven children? if he does not, I do.”

When I went home, I observed to Mrs. Plympton, “How would Mr. Peters have opened his eyes if I had said quietly to him, as he looked at me, ‘Mr. Peters, I am not making a living!

Sophia laughed, and said, “It would have been a good joke,—it would indeed.” And as she fidgeted about, and smoothed her apron with an assumed air of indifference, I saw the quiver that went across her face, in spite of the smile upon her lips.

And how is it, I would ask, that while so many inferior to myself, both in education and abilities, get on, I am left behind? I am not disagreeable; if I were, would Mrs. Jameson show me her new bonnets? would Miss Thompson try on her new cloak for me to see? would Smith ask my advice before entering into the shipping business? or George Purples, Esq., request me to give my opinion upon his son George’s aptitude for the army? No, I am not disagreeable; that is not to be maintained.

No one would doubt that I was attentive, did they see me, day after day, when I return from the few calls I have to make, sitting down, book in hand, or teaching my children—always employed in some way on the spot, lest I should lose a chance patient.

Sophia sometimes laughingly tells me that I am before my time. It is agreeable to solace one’s self in that way; but I am inclined to ask, am I not behind my time?

Physic - Charles Green.png

Everybody is jostling everybody; there’s no time to see who’s down. The hour is striking by Rexford Cathedral; don’t you hear its clang through the rattle of carts and waggons, and the puffing of steam over the bridge yonder? There’s no time to be lost—the train will start! Time waits for no man—there are three minutes to get up the steps, take your ticket, into the carriage, and be off! There’s the bell! Good heavens, and there’s the whistle! It’s off! it’s off! There’s nothing left but a long line of floating white steam, that curls over and under, over and under, and vanishes before the wind. Your coach may have knocked down the greengrocer’s boy, but why doesn’t he get out of the way? These are not days to be putting your hands in your pockets and staring about. You must be up and away—here, there, everywhere—or you’d better give up the race at once. But if we are all to be so bustling, all so fleet of foot, all so strong of wind, who’s to win? I want to run without knocking my neighbours before me, sending them flying into space. I want to live, but I don’t want to prevent others living too.

But it isn’t the spirit of the time. If I do not boast and bluster, I’m nothing. And therefore it is that I sit at home looking at the hundreds that pass and repass, but nobody turns in. They cross the road to Barlington, or they go round the corner to Scorlings, and I sit waiting for the patients that never come.

I go up-stairs to my drawing-room, and look up Clifton Street. People are coming down quite fast. There’s Sims. I know his wife’s expectant. Is he—is he coming—I think—no, he’s turned the corner. Well, well.

Yesterday I went into the nursery, and found my eldest daughter, Lydia, sitting alone, with her gazelle-like eyes suffused with tears. In reply to my question as to what was wrong with her, she only smiled like her mother, and said, “She had been moping.” I knew what it meant. I stirred the fire, by way of showing that I was cheerful, and not afraid of my coal bills. I hummed the latest box-organ tune, and Lydia brightened up amazingly. No one would have guessed how choked my voice was, and how I had to push it forcibly out against its will. When Lydia went away I gave over humming, and I said in the bitterness of my heart, “For God’s sake, will the patients never come!”

Then I took a doleful journey through the rooms. I felt that I was becoming stupid. A sort of counter irritation might have its effect; so I go into the waiting-room that I may survey the nine chairs that are never sat upon. There I find my oldest boy of twelve comfortably settled by the window, reading by stealth my medical books, although I have decidedly set my face against his following in my footsteps. I could have taken the books from his hand and burnt them, but Philip is no ordinary lad. There is the light of genius in his thoughtful face, and I could only say, “Philip, God bless you!”

I am now forty-five. There are grey hairs plentifully bestrewn among my locks. There are wrinkles at the corners of my eyes, wrinkles on my forehead, wrinkles on my heart. I have been engaged in the practice of physic now in this large and populous manufacturing town of Rexford for twelve years, and it has never paid yet. Were it not for my wife’s legacy, we must have given up long since.

“Andrew Plympton!” said Sophia to me impressively last evening, “let us leave Wimpledown House. The tax-bills are coming again, and there is nothing to pay them with. Barlington gets all the practice, and Scorlings—they live and we grovel. Let us go away,—let’s go away, anywhere,—dear!”

But I clasped my hands over my face. I said, “For heaven’s sake, Sophia, don’t you give way, don’t you despair! If you do, then we are lost indeed!”

And we sat and looked at one another. The fire flickered, the shadows deepened, the gas-lamps from the street cast their reflections upon the walls of the room, and we sat brooding, with the fiend of despair upon our hearts.

This morning, Jeremiah Peters, Esq., drew up his carriage at our gates.

“A little tickling cough, doctor; just a little cough.”

So I examined his throat, and sounded his chest. There was nothing wrong with it. I could see no sign of the slightest ailment. He looked particularly rosy and well for a man of seventy-two. I said to myself, “Can he be making a fool of me?” Then the temptation came strong upon me, “Sophia has not a sixpence in her pocket—Lydia wants shoes. If I do not write him a prescription, Peters will think it was no use his coming. He’ll never pay me if I don’t. He wants no physic, but it will do him no harm—and me a great deal of good. Shall I give him a linctus, oxymel of squills, syrup of poppies and a little nitre? It’s innocent enough—shall I?”

“Hum! ahem! that is to say, Mr. Peters. In the Devil’s name, my good sir, you want no physic! If you stay a minute longer I shall be driven to it, in spite of myself!”

“Dr. Plympton, are you mad?”

“Ah, if I only were,” I said. “But I can’t do it if I starve. I can’t belie my conscience. You are in good health, sir, and want none of my stock-in-trade, and that’s the whole of the matter!”

“Plympton,” says Mr. Peters, “you’re a gentleman, sir, and I honour you.” And he went away.

And so, just as I had written thus far, determined to make a confidante of the public, as a desperate act of throwing the neglect I suffer in its face, Lydia brings in a note, and lays it with paled cheek before me. “It is about the taxes, child. There’s no use in looking so dull, Lydia.” And as I raised my eyes from my work, I perceived that it was the handwriting of Jeremiah Peters, Esq.

With trembling hands I opened it. It lies beside me now. It is a Bank of England note for 100l. “A token of respect from Jeremiah Peters, for the character of a man who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, has a conscience!”

And who knows but that the patients may come after all.

A. Z.